Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Currants (Κορινθιακή σταφίδα)

The last time I went to the supermarket, a top-range one that often brings in small amounts of fresh produce from around Greece, for the isolated Cretan palate to try, I found an unusual grape variety in the fresh fruit display: bunches of tiny purple grapes, as big as pearls. I realised that I was seeing, for the first time, the tiny grape that currants are made from. They were selling very cheaply: less than €2 a kilo. I bought a couple of bunches for €0.49.

Mavri Korinthiaki These tiny grapes are derived from an ancient grape variety which used to be grown mainly in the Peloponese, namely Corinth, which is where the word 'currant' is derived from. Currants were once a prized commodity and a source of wealth for Greeks since the Middle Ages, when they commanded high prices by being traded with Western Europe in their dry form. Those days are over now, since currants are now being grown in other parts of the world, notably California. Even in Greece, they are now mainly grown on the island of Zakynthos* rather than Corinth (the ones I bought come from Corinth). 

I bought these grapes on a whim - they reminded me of their incredibly long history. They were mentioned in ancient texts as far back as 2,000 years ago.

Currant grapes in their fresh form were once one of the main grape varieties used to make the famous Mavrodaphne, in the region of Patras (also in the Peloponese). Mavrodaphne is a very sweet dark red desert wine, rather like port, which is still being made in Patras (by Achaia Clauss winery, where it was first created - it has a rather sad romantic history).

Nowadays, neither the grapes nor the currants are very popular. The grapes are too small and fragile to be highly commercial (although they have a concentrated taste, they are seedless and very juicy), and currants are now also produced elsewhere from other varieties of grapes (some non-grape berries are also called currants in their dry form), which are easier to grow and/or more productive. But Greece still produces most of the world's production of grape currants. 

 File:Zante currant drying in Tsilivi.jpg
 Currants drying under the Greek sun in Zakynthos, 2008 (photograph courtesy of Robert Wallace)

The importance of currants in old-fashioned English baking cannot be underestimated. Christmas fruit cakes, currant buns and Eccles cakes are all based on the addition of currants to the mixture. These cakes all started to be made during the Middle Ages - this is around the time of the expanded use of sugar, which coincided with the time that the Venetians popped into Greece, who started the currant trade. What started off as being all Greek to them is now part of our global heritage.   

Corinth currant grape muffins, richly scented with the aroma of the fresh currant grape, which turns out to be a perfect substitute for blueberries

*The island of Zakynthos is commonly referred to as Zante (as the Italians named it) in non-Greek sources - for us Greeks, Zakynthos is always Zakynthos.

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